In his first year on the job, California prisons chief Jeffrey Beard is having to deal with a hunger strike by inmates.
The head of California's prison system will meet Friday with advocates for inmates who've been on a hunger strike for 25 days.
Inmates in the Security Housing Unit, or "SHU," at Pelican Bay State Prison launched the protest on July 8. Prisoners in the SHUs are restricted to their cells for 22 hours a day, with little human contact. They want California officials to change policies that have kept them and thousands of other inmates in restrictive and austere conditions for years and, in some cases, decades.
Thirty-thousand inmates initially refused food. On Thursday, California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported 499 inmates were still fasting.
"It's getting to be a very critical time, " said Carol Strickman, an attorney on the mediation team for the hunger strike leaders.
Strickman said the group asked to meet with Corrections Secretary Jeff Beard this week, before inmates suffer further harm.
"We're hoping that it means that the Secretary is recognizing the gravity of the situation," Strickman said. "And [that he's] willing to have a conversation with part of our team to see if there's a way we can come to some reasonable solution."
But Corrections department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman issued a statement describing the meeting as a "discussion" only: "Secretary Beard wants to ensure he hears the advocates' concerns and that they understand the various changes that have taken place in the Security Housing Units over the past two years."
Many of the inmates in the SHUs have been identified by prison officials as gang members or accomplices. In the past, prison investigators tagged those inmates solely on their relationships with other prisoners. They were then segregated from the general prison population in Security Housing Units at Pelican Bay and three other faciltities.
Corrections now requires proof that an inmate participated in a gang crime to be segregated in the SHU. The department also created a program that allows inmates to earn more privileges and less restriction through good behavior. Previously, the only way out of the SHU was to renounce the gang life and divulge details about their participation to prison investigators.
The hunger strike leaders maintain the changes don't go far enough. They want a moratorium on indefinite stays in the SHU, adding that any prisoner who's been isolated for more than a decade should be moved to less austere housing immediately.